Sidle Creek by Jolene McIlwain (Blog Tour)
I’m a sucker for “dirty realism,” a term coined in the 1980s to encompass gritty stories of blue-collar Americana: Ron Rash, David Vann, Daniel Woodrell et al. (I wrote a whole article about it in 2013). It’s less common, certainly, to find women writing in this subgenre, and that feminine touch is part of what makes Sidle Creek unique. In this debut collection of 22 short stories, loosely linked by their location in the Appalachian hills in western Pennsylvania and a couple of recurring minor characters, Jolene McIlwain softens the harsh realities of addiction, poverty and violence with the tender bruises of infertility and lost love.
The title story, which opens the book, has a shifting first-person point-of-view, first telling us about and then putting us into the mind of Esme Andersen, who’s 20 in 1975. Various diagnoses have plagued her family, medical words that repeat as chants: hemorrhage, endometriosis. Superstitions around the creek cast it alternately as a potential site of harm or healing as her single father tries to help her deal with her severe periods. The cover image comes from “Shell,” in which Tiller Shanty reads signs in the markings on red-winged blackbird eggs. He learned his skill of divination from his Vietnamese wife, but conceals from her a portent about her future. It turns out there’s more than one way to lose a beloved.
Grief is a resonant theme in so many of the stories. “The Fractal Geometry of Grief” is a shining example. Hubert Ashe, a widowed mathematician, becomes obsessed with a doe and sets up trail cams and a feeding station to watch her. It’s not clear whether he believes the animal is a reincarnation of his wife or not, but it’s unwise to get so attached in a hunting area. In “Seeds,” a man finds a photograph of his dying wife as a girl and revisits the sadness of her life. “Steer,” one of the most affecting stories, has a middle-aged man hit by anxiety, unable to forget the death of one of their cattle back when he was 16. As horrific as the experience was, it made him receptive to both beauty and pain.
Animal suffering is indeed frequent – something that seems important to mention, as I know a lot of readers who avoid scenes of it whenever possible. In “Eminent Domain,” the electricity shed where teenagers used to go drinking is found to be full of slaughtered cats. It’s the prompt the protagonist needs to escape this dead-end town. “Loosed” is a masterpiece in the vein of Demon Copperhead (though much more violent) about a man who makes money on increasingly cruel sport: cock fighting, then dog fighting, then dirty fights between his own four sons. The flash forward that ends this one is devastating. I, too, am sensitive to reading about animal deaths, but the animal suffering only matches the human here. The nastiness of “The Less Said” makes that plain.
Pregnancy or infant loss is a recurring element. In just three pages, “Seed to Full” expresses a world of sorrow as a woodworker crafts a coffin for his infant son. Even where it is not a central subject, infertility is mentioned in a number of stories. In “You Four Are the One,” four adolescent neighbor girls help Cinta Johns out around the house, hoping with her that this fifth pregnancy will be the one that lasts. “The Steep Side,” a memorable closer that shifts between past and future, has a teen coming across a crashed van, a heavily pregnant woman, and an older woman claiming to be a nurse. What he sees haunts him into adulthood.
There’s an air of mystery to that one, and particularly in “Those Red Boots,” about the disappearance of a waitress who worked at a Hooters-style joint where all the comely staff wear the same uniforms and perform titillating dances. My preference was for longer stories like this where you get greater depth of characterization and more scenes and dialogue. I might have considered cutting a handful of the flash-length stories. However, even in these micro-fictions, there are still interesting setups. My favorite among them was “The Fourth,” in which Independence Day fireworks are triggering for shell-shocked Uncle Ron.
At times harrowing, always clear-eyed, these stories are true to life and compassionate about human foibles and animal pain. I would highly recommend them to readers of Kent Haruf and Jayne Anne Phillips. McIlwain has such an established voice that this hardly seems like a first book. I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.
With thanks to Melville House for the proof copy for review.
Buy Sidle Creek from Bookshop.org [affiliate link]
I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour for Sidle Creek. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.